Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why are FFPE specimens in demand?

Thanks to an amazingly productive half century of molecular biology research, sensitive new techniques are now available that allow scientists to extract useful information from small samples of preserved tissue. Despite the fact that most pathology specimens have been chemically altered by fixation in formalin and subjected to a range of other processes including paraffin embedding and staining protocols, it turns out that informative molecules such as DNA and RNA as well as various antigens and their epitopes are often still present and detectable in both FFPE tissue blocks and cut sections. This makes it possible to use use existing biobanks and pathology lab samples as a source of research material that can help scientists test theories about the molecular characteristics and causes of disease. Additionally, thanks to the cumulative size of modern biobanks, scientific findings can be supported or refuted by statistically significant examination of multiple cases, without having to subject living human subjects to intrusive lab work beyond their initial treatment or biopsy. Individually, archival FFPE blocks are rarely valuable for research, but when they are gathered together into meaningful cohorts that represent many cases of specific indications, and supplied along with attached clinical data and similarly sized cohorts of normal cases, they become an incredibly useful research tool. This is especially true when these cohorts are created by specialized organizations that can screen the blocks for quality and de-identify them as required by 45 CFR 46 US regulations.

One particularly active area of research right now is the investigation of biomarkers on the surface of cancer cells. These biomarkers can that tell scientists something about the mechanisms of oncogenesis and metastasis, and when coupled with outcome information from medical records, they can even be used to predict patient prognoses and likely responses to specific treatments. Although the number of these useful biomarkers is growing rapidly, as yet, only a relatively small proportion are actually used to personalize therapeutic strategies in clinical practice.

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